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A year ago, Citlali Sanchez Uvovic didn’t know much about storytelling. She’d also never been to Swan’s Market and wasn’t particularly familiar with the surrounding neighborhood in Old Oakland. So when her mom encouraged her to join a youth program based at Swan’s that was all about storytelling, the 16-year-old Fremont High sophomore from East Oakland was curious—but had no clue what to expect.
“I didn’t really know what it was going to be until I started,” she said. “I was just looking at it as something to do in my free time.”
In January 2022, Sanchez Uvovic began meeting up every week with six other high school students at Chapter 510, a youth writing, bookmaking, and publishing space located at Swan’s Market, a local landmark that’s one of the city’s oldest public marketplaces. Over the course of nine months, the teens worked with instructors at Chapter 510 and an array of creative advisors on developing audio stories exploring the history of Swan’s, and what it means to the people who have a connection to it.
Sanchez Uvovic and the other youth worked closely with lead teaching artist Elena Botkin-Levy, who brought an extensive background in audio storytelling and youth media to the project. Earlier this year, Botkin-Levy launched Mapping Queer Oakland, featuring oral histories told by elders from the local LGBTQ community. Previously, she’d spent years teaching and helping young people tell stories at organizations like YR Media (formerly Youth Radio) and Out Loud Radio.
The length of the commitment and the nature of the themes being tackled with the seven youth participants at Chapter 510, she said, created the conditions for a special experience.
“We were exploring this idea of what it means to belong, but also creating that space in the program. So by the end, we saw this total ownership of the project,” she said. “They spent so long thinking and talking to people and learning. Then to hear these stories come together—it was profound for them to hear their voices as narrators in these beautiful pieces, and know that they did that.”
For Sanchez Uvovic, what began as a curiosity became something much more exciting. The program opened her eyes to the idea of one day becoming a professional storyteller or journalist, and she bonded with her peers in the cohort over the weeks and months they spent researching, learning how to conduct interviews, write scripts, and construct narratives.
“It just felt like a community space where all of us were doing this new thing, together. I didn’t know any of the other students but we all got close because we were all working on something that we really cared about,” said Sanchez Uvovic.
She even came to develop a personal relationship with an area of Oakland from which she’d previously felt isolated. “I live in East Oakland and I’d never even been to Swan’s Market before,” she said. “But now I have a connection.”
Supporting Botkin-Levy in working with the students were teaching artist Vernon “Trey” Keeve, producer and sound engineer Alicia Crawford, program manager Marabet Morales, and program director Jahan Khalighi.
Chapter 510 also brought in a bevy of local creatives and Oakland experts to advise the youth over the course of the project, a group that included local journalist Pendarvis Harshaw, Oakland Poet Laureate Ayodele Nzinga, Oakland librarian Emily Foster, former EBALDC executive director Josh Simon, and Lauren Wong and Ashutosh Singhal of SITELAB Urban Studio. [Full disclosure: I also had the privilege of acting as an advisor to Chapter 510 on the project, and the pleasure of meeting with the students during one afternoon this past summer to discuss story ideas.]
By the end, Sanchez Uvovic and the other students—Karol Suarez, Phoebe Lefebvre, Olivia Richardson Feldman, Isis Pascual, Leila McCullough, and Fernando Barrera—had created an impressive body of work: eight audio stories featuring the voices of small business owners, residents, and visitors telling stories about Swan’s and describing their relationship to the place, alongside interviews with Oakland historian Dorothy Lazard and the city of Oakland’s cultural affairs manager, Roberto Bedoya, which added valuable context. The audio series also includes poems by students reflecting on how they perceive and experience Swan’s.
The Oaklandside partnered with Chapter 510 to make the collection of audio stories, titled Oakland Belonging: The Voices of Swan’s Market, available as a podcast. The stories can also be experienced as a self-guided walking tour of Swan’s Market and the surrounding neighborhoods, and as a printed anthology of interview transcripts and poetry published by Chapter 510.
A larger initiative exploring the relationship between storytelling and urban design
Much more than a one-off youth storytelling project, Oakland Belonging connects to broader work happening in Oakland and beyond, that seeks to make urban design more responsive and conducive to the needs of the people who interact with it.
It all began as an idea conceived more than a year ago by Emily Weinstein, currently a deputy director at the city of Oakland’s Office of Housing and Community Development. At the time, Weinstein wasn’t with the city but participating in a fellowship with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, where she was doing research about how people’s surrounding environments impact their health and well-being.
Specifically, Weinstein took an interest in city landscapes, and a burgeoning idea known as “story-centered design.”
“I think there is a real desire to take this process of building lived environments and merge it with people’s lived experiences,” said Weinstein. “So we can begin to move from a sense of place and space to one of belonging. It’s an area that needs to be greatly developed, and that’s what this initiative is aiming to do.”
The first place Weinstein went to discuss the idea was SITELAB Urban Studio, a San Francisco-based urban design firm that approaches design as a social practice, by focusing on the history of places and people’s personal experiences of them.
Not long after, Weinstein “fortuitously” ran into Chapter 510 executive director Janet Heller, and the two began talking about the idea of collaborating on a story-centered design project with young people in Oakland. Chapter 510 had only recently moved into a new space at Swan’s Market, providing the perfect place for local youth to explore the idea of belonging.
“Many of the youth had never been to Swans and Chapter 510 had just moved in there,” recalled Botkin-Levy. “So how do we explore this place in the context of their own experiences and the changes happening in Oakland with things like gentrification? Where are the stories? How do we find them? Then how do we share them?”
For Weinstein, the youth storytelling project represents an important first step in what she hopes will be a longer-term movement toward more socially conscious urban design practices in cities like Oakland.
“We knew that we would have to learn from the storytelling process and from the youth,” said Weinstein. “We also learned early on that storytelling and making visible people’s experiences has its own cadence. So we set up the framework for this exploration but gave a lot of space to Chapter 510’s exploration of what that is.”
Now that the stories are finished, Weinstein said SITELAB will gather the information and use it to create frameworks that city planners and designers can use to inform their work—to “move from case studies to real tools.”
Botkin-Levy’s hope for the work is simply that people listen.
“The way folks can engage and honor the work these people did and the legacy of Swan’s and be engaged is to go listen to the stories,” she said. “There are stories around us all the time, so people can consider where they are in the world, and what it means to pay attention—and listen.”
The “Oakland Belonging” podcast, presented by The Oaklandside, was made possible with support from the Golden State Warriors Foundation and Bridge Bank.
The larger Chapter 510 youth storytelling initiative was supported by grants from California Humanities and The Kenneth Rainin Foundation.